Kalyani tank

Among the group of monuments in Hampi, I came across a step tank next to the so-called Mahanavami mound. A small aqueduct ends above it, clearly meant to top up the tank. The precise geometrical pattern of this structure gives very interesting photos when the sun is about halfway between the horizon and the zenith. The well has been shaped into a square, and four sets of stairs descend from the ground to the water. The sides are inclined, so the opening at the top is larger than the surface of the well. Each set of stairs is a square pyramid in five levels. The shadows brought out this simple geometry very nicely. The excavation in 1980 was followed by a loving reconstruction.

Beyond a name, Kalyani tank (Kalyani pushkarini), I couldn’t find anything about this well-preserved structure: neither the years of construction, nor the social use. Was it somehow related to the Mahanavami mound, in which case they two might have been built at the same time? Or were they built at different times, so they are just accidentally near each other? Or could they have been built at different times, but used together when the later of the two structures was completed? Hampi became Vijayanagara’s capital in the 14th century, and probably abandoned by the end of the 16th century, so there are at least broad limits on the time during which the tank was built. The Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas shows that the climate was quite variable in this period, with two or three year-long droughts happening more than once during a person’s lifetime in imperial Hampi. A stable empire would therefore have to pay attention to water works. Still, I’m surprised by the utter lack of material on the monuments at this site.

Eagle-owl

We drove slowly along a canal outside of Hampi. The cliff face across the canal is said to be home to several eagle-owls (Bubo bubo, or the Eurasian eagle-owl). They are the largest of owls, widespread across the world, but this spot is far south of a widely reproduced range map that you see on the web. Years ago, my first sighting of this species was only a little north of here, again outside the popularly represented range maps, but well-known, and well-marked, in field guides. Actually, the eagle-owl can be seen almost everywhere in India except in some of the north-eastern states.

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Left to myself, I think I would have driven straight past the spot where I saw this guy sitting out in the open. You can see from the slide show here how hard it is to spot unless you stand right here and look. Often there are white streaks of scat on rock which indicate that a bird frequents a place, but there was no such indicator here. If it wasn’t for our local guide, who’d seen the bird here before, we would easily have missed it. It was mid-afternoon. The bird opened one orange eye to look at us. As we stood there taking photos, it opened both eyes warily. But after a while it was convinced that we were no danger, and closed both eyes and went back to rest.

Shikra

Sitting on the steps of an old structure in Hampi, I saw a preening shikra (Accipiter badius). One way to tell the difference between the sexes is by the eye colour; this one, with its orange eyes, is a female. A male has a significantly more red eye. This is perhaps the smallest of Indian raptors, but I’m continually surprised by its weight. The leaf it sat on did not move up significantly when it flew away. Until then I was happy to see it preen, because that was one way of getting to see the details of its tail feathers.

I’m afraid this post will be short because I have to take a very inconvenient flight.

The social life of bears

The Daroji Bear Sanctuary near Hospet in Karnataka turned out to be a wonderful place to see sloth bears (Melursus ursinus). I’d never noticed the long sickle shaped claws and sharp teeth in such detail before. Their long and curved claws led to their mis-classification as sloths in the 18th century, hence their “common” name. There is nothing sluggish about them. Bears being the secretive animals they normally are, I don’t expect to see their behaviour in so much detail elsewhere.

A mother and child made an appearance on the hillside first. The cub was old enough to pad along with its mother, exploring around its mother’s path. Cubs remain with their mothers until they are two years old. In this part of the country they are born in winter, so this one was probably not more than a year old.

I always wonder why the bears have this thick coat. The sloth bear evolved in the Deccan plateau, the same region where I was now watching them, perhaps less than 5 million years ago. This is a period during which the weather cooled on the average, and forests were replaced by grasslands and scrublands. On the other hand, the Indian Ocean monsoon had already set in, so the interior of India would perhaps been dry and warm when it was not wet and warm. As I watched the mother and child feeding, I wondered how they could stand the weather.

A solitary juvenile made an appearance without upsetting the mother and cub. I’d always thought of sloth bears as solitary creatures, so this was a little surprising to me. These bears become sexually active at about the age of three, so there is a year when they have left their mother but are not seeking mates. The new bear approached quite close to the cub without the mother being perturbed. I wondered whether the adult female was the mother of this juvenile, but there was no way to tell.

After a while another adult and a cub appeared. The two cubs started playing together without the adults becoming aggressive. This was a complete surprise to me. Cubs of sloth bears remain with mothers; the father does not play a role in rearing the cubs. So this was not a family group; it was two different families, and a third juvenile, perhaps an older offspring of one of the two adult females. I have no idea whether such groups have been recorded.

There is a lot of literature on the foraging and feeding behaviour of sloth bears, but assemblies of so many of them in one place is not mentioned. Is it so common that no one remarks on it? Unlikely, since some sources remark about their solitary habits. Has the relatively small size of this sanctuary changed their behaviour, and made them more social? Possible, since territorial behaviour is not mentioned in any article on sloth bears. It would be interesting to see whether any field scientists are studying this population of bears.

Bear with me

Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) are secretive animals. The Family and I have been doing wildlife trips in India for around fifteen years, but in all these years the number of photos of bears I’ve got can be counted on the fingers. When we heard about the Daroji Bear Sanctuary near Hospet in Karnataka, we were ready to go. This is a small reserve by any standards, only about 8.3 square Kilometers in area, but an important one for the preservation of bears. This landscape would have had a large population of bears historically. As the land began to fill up with farms, the need for a sanctuary became clear, and Daroji was notified 25 years ago.

One wonderful thing in this place is a hide. We got permission to drive into a parking lot inside the sanctuary one afternoon, and then were conducted to the hide by two park rangers. The hide faced a clearing beyond which was a small hillock and a meadow with a water hole. The ground here was teeming with termites, which the bears love to eat.

The bears made an appearance as the sunlight began to pick up a slight golden tinge. I quickly realized that they were not bothered by us sitting inside the hide. It was a great opportunity to take videos of their behaviour. This one shows a mother with a cub and another juvenile. One of them digs into a termite mound, getting the insects all over its paws, and then falls back to lick them off. If this makes you think of bears as jokers, then let the video play. When the mother senses some danger to the cubs (and a peacock calls somewhere nearby) she rears up on her legs and gets ready to charge. You wouldn’t want to be in the way.

In spite of the discomfort of about six of us crowded into a small hide full of mosquitoes, this was an experience I’m happy to have gone through. I doubt that I will ever get a better view of sloth bears.

Bird watching in Hampi

Who goes to watch birds in Hampi, you might ask. I might cough in embarrassment, me, The Family, a handful of others. Whatever for, you might persist. Then I would have to tell you that spotted sandgrouse (Pterocles senegallus) have been spotted there, and if one is lucky, this might be the easiest place to spot them. And if you persist in asking whether we did, the true answer is that we didn’t. But we saw more. Like the bird in the featured photo.

No that can’t be right. Sorry, that was just a kite that someone was flying in China. No, I meant the wire-tailed swallow (Hirundo smithii) that you see in the photo above. I’ve only seen them flitting about in the air before, and learnt to tell them by their unmistakable wire-tailed profile. I hadn’t ever had such a good view of a sitting bird. The light showed the rust on its head very well. The blue upper feathers are in shadow and look nearly black, so there is scope for a better photo in future. If you have seen clusters of mud bulbs hanging below bridges over clean rivers, they are usually the nests of these swallows. I used the word clean very deliberately, because the presence of these nests has been proposed as bio-markers for non-polluted water.

Is that all? No, we did get to see a few more birds. More about them later.

Dancing in the breeze

After three weeks of traveling on work and sitting in day-long meetings, it was nice to take a long weekend off to sit in the sun and watch grass flowers fluttering and dancing in the breeze. These are no daffodils, but in the cool breeze of interior Karnataka’s winter, they managed to fill my heart with pleasure.

When The Family decided to plan a break in Hampi, combining history, art, and architecture with nature and bird watching, I thought it might get a little overwhelming. But the weather turned out to be wonderful, if you were in the shade. Hampi is a small town near a nature sanctuary. A five minute drive takes you into a countryside full of scrub forests. The bird life you see here is not as rich as that in the coastal rainforests, but there are scrubland species which are hard to see elsewhere. I will post about that later.

For the moment, I just show you a simple video of house sparrows (Passer domesticus), Indian silverbills (Euodice malabarica, white throated munia), and scaly breasted munia (Lonchura punctulata) feeding together. I liked the commotion as they peck at grains. The sound is mainly due to the silverbills, which like to flock together and chirp to make sure that they are in contact. All three species are seed eaters, and therefore able to survive across a range of ecologies, including the dry scrublands of the interior of India.

A monsoon drive: Dharwad to Goa

I had to decide how to travel from Dharwad to Mumbai. My meeting ended about noon. Then there are three choices: wait the night and take a morning’s flight from Dharwad to Mumbai, fly to Mumbai with a change in Bengaluru, drive to Goa and fly to Mumbai. In this season, right at the beginning of the monsoon, I decided that the third choice would be the most scenic; the route passes close to a very large tract of protected forest as it descends from the Deccan plateau to the Konkan coast by way of the Western Ghats. It also turned out to be the fastest.

We started an hour after noon, and I was told that the drive would be four hours long. I was not inclined to believe that. The map showed the distance to be 163 Kilometers. “Three hours,” I thought to myself, feeling a little annoyed with the driver when he hit a speed of 100 Kilometers and hour right outside Dharwad. I realized that I had no chance of photographing the very interesting road signs that began to appear right after we got on to the highway. The few roadside businesses petered out very soon. The last one that I saw had these impressively large tires. The highway was full of trucks which could have stopped for one of them.

In less than half an hour we had left these establishments behind. In India you are never too far from people. We passed smaller villages every few kilometers. Houses were generally of brick, with roofs of fired clay tiles. They seemed to use hardly any mortar, but often a few walls would be plastered and painted with bright chemical paint. The photo above shows a typical hut. I noticed that huts are generally built in the shade of a large tree. Summers must be killing up in these highlands.

I’d left without having anything to eat. The driver also wanted lunch, but he had a destination in mind. I kept looking out for roadside establishments, but couldn’t spot much. We’d left the farmlands behind, and were in forest now. The abandoned shack that you see in the photo above was typical of business premises in this area. Only a smatter of plastic garbage testified to the fact that it does serve food sometimes.

The beautiful forest took my mind off my fast depleting levels of energy. I like taking stop-motion videos in rides like these. The video above is speeded up ten times. We covered a little more than ten kilometers through the jungle in the part of the video which you see above. The rain was a little intermittent drizzle, and the sun broke through every now and then. The nearly empty road, the watery light, and the green rain forest around us created a magic ambience. I was happy to have made this choice.

Around the midway point we pulled into a larger village called Ramnagar. A small eatery here was the place that the driver was aiming for. He’d told me earlier that the vada pav here was good. I ordered one and found it delicious. Crisp vada covering wonderfully spiced potato served in the usual sourdough pav, with some chopped onions and a garlic chutney. I’m too wimpish to bite into the optional fried green chili. I washed it down with a chai. A family on the road sat at the next table and had a lunch plate; the children asked why there were no noodles in this place. I was still a little peckish. I ordered a second. The driver was still on his chai. I stood outside the shop, taking in the sight of this roadside village as I finished my second vada pav.

We were a little more than halfway, and it had taken us two hours. The road would now rise into the ghats before descending quickly into the Konkan coastland. We started on the rise soon after the break. This was forest land. I saw a Hornbill fly above us, a little ahead. When I messaged this, the instant question that came back was “Which Hornbill?” What a horrible bunch of expert birders I talk to! I didn’t get that good a sighting, but I thought it was a Malabar pied Hornbill. The sighting had come and gone too fast to record. Soon we began to descend. Our snaking path took us repeatedly across a channel of water which grew as we descended. We stopped finally at a point where the road became wider with a culvert and a shoulder. Several cars were parked there, and groups of people were peering at the stream which flowed below the big culvert. Lower down this would apparently turn into the Dudhsagar waterfall. So we were at the beginning of the Mandovi river. The featured photo was taken here: the wooded lowlands are Goa.

The last bit of the drive took us through the charming villages of south Goa. I love this part of the country, but I always wonder about living next to a highway. I see beautifully painted houses, clean, with a little garden in front of it. The village store, the post office, a place of worship, and people striding about on work, stopping for a spot of gossip. We sped through it all. The video above shows part of this drive; if you look at it, watch the villages on the sides of the road. The large bridge that we cross is over the Zuari river. In one drive we crossed both of the main rivers of Goa!